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John C. Adams, Harvard ’69

The Harvard Crimson reports on the return of a notable alumnus who has done pretty well in this composing business and had this to say about his old teacher Leon Kirchner:

[Kirchner] himself felt that no matter what he did he’d never be as good as Shubert and passed that onto the students. It became a form of self-flagellation, kills the creative spirit, and was incipient in his teaching.

Sound familiar to anyone?


Comment from David Salvage
Time: May 4, 2007, 10:29 am

I hope that “Schubert” typo is ours — not the Crimson’s.

And, no, this sort of teaching does not sound familiar to me. It’s happened to other people, I know; but I guess I’ve been lucky to have teachers who don’t believe in making their students feel inferior to past achievements.

Comment from Daniel Gilliam
Time: May 4, 2007, 11:26 am

I agree with David. I would say that this mentality is more self-inflicted than anything else (not to say that John’s wasn’t).

Comment from Everette Minchew
Time: May 4, 2007, 11:38 am

It’s their mistake not ours.
A couple years ago, I read an article on a concert in Louisville that featured the music of Kurt Vile and Poulank.

Comment from Daniel Gilliam
Time: May 4, 2007, 11:43 am

I hope the article wasn’t written by a Louisvillian!

Comment from Everette Minchew
Time: May 4, 2007, 12:05 pm

It was in one of their local papers, I think.

Comment from Eric Lin
Time: May 4, 2007, 1:11 pm

I’d like to apologize for that. I write for the damn paper. (Though not responsible for that article)

Comment from Anthony Cornicello
Time: May 4, 2007, 1:55 pm

Wow, not exactly a fond memory.

Of COURSE you can’t be as ‘good’ as Schubert, especially when Schubert was the best at being Schubert! Just like you can’t be as ‘good’ as Buxtehude, Turina, Delius, Coltrane, or any other of the myriad talents that make up the world of music. What Kirchner doesn’t seem to realize is that he could have been as ‘good’ as Kirchner.

What the hell does that mean, anyway – ‘as good as Schubert’? Does he mean writing songs and tons of little waltzes for piano? (I like and appreciate Schubert, mind you – this could be anyone that I’m talking about.) Using certain Schubertian harmonic progressions or voicings?

I agree – it’s entirely unhealthy. And, it’s the way academia was run for a long time. You must internalize all the ‘masters’, and then you’ll be good enough to be considered a composer. I’ve heard some people critique music by saying how Berg wouldn’t have done it this way. (Really? Do you mean that things are different in 2007 then in 1935?) Look, I like the past, but when it becomes a hinderance, it’s not good.

Comment from Kyle Gann
Time: May 4, 2007, 5:13 pm

I never had a teacher with that attitude, but I’ve certainly known composers who had it, both in and out of academia. I much prefer the spirit Roy Harris showed, as evinced in the following anecdote:

Harris and Virgil Thomson were having lunch. Harris looked tired and dejected.
Thomson: “What’s wrong?”
Harris: “I’m fifty years old, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
Thomson: “Make what?”
Harris: “Beethoven.”

Comment from Judd
Time: May 4, 2007, 8:24 pm

“Kurt Vile” would be a great, great name for a punk band. If anyone does it, send me an invitation, please.

Comment from chris sahar
Time: May 4, 2007, 10:01 pm

I received a nice, inadvertantly, poisonous comment from a young composer (he looked about early 20’s) at a concert I went to last night. I said I decided to study composition only a few years ago (and I am 40 now) even though I enjoyed doing it (rather badly) on my own since I was a kid. His response “what a waste of time” (meaning the time I “delayed” studying composition with a private teacher and taking it seriously).

I could rant endlessly about this but all I will say is – please get to know a person’s life before judging its efficiency (if one can do that!).

Comment from Giovanni Petranich
Time: May 11, 2007, 12:45 pm

I heard Pierre Aimard on WNYC play 3 Schubert Waltzes merged with Stockhousen(sic). I think Kirchner was on to something!!